EXPLAINER: Capitol riot investigation growing 2 years later
The largest investigation in the Justice Department’s history keeps growing two years after a violent mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol and challenged the foundations of American democracy.
More than 930 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the siege on Jan. 6, 2021, and the tally increases by the week. Hundreds more people remain at large on the second anniversary of the unprecedented assault that was fueled by lies that the 2020 election was stolen.
A surplus of self-incriminating videos and social media posts has made it difficult for riot suspects to present viable defenses. Federal prosecutors have a near-perfect trial record, securing a conviction in all but one case.
The cases have clogged Washington’s federal court, a building less than a mile from the Capitol. Virtually every weekday, judges are sentencing rioters or accepting their guilty pleas while carving out room on their dockets for trials. Already scheduled for this year are trials for about 140 riot defendants.
At least 538 cases, more than half of those brought so far, have been resolved through guilty pleas, trials, dismissals or the defendant’s death, according to an Associated Press review of court records. That leaves approximately 400 unresolved cases at the outset of 2023.
While a House committee has wrapped up its investigation of the riot, the Justice Department’s work appears to be far from done. A special counsel is overseeing two federal investigations involving Trump: one into the retention of classified documents at the former president’s Florida estate and a second into efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The Jan. 6 attack was an “assault on our democracy,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
“And we remain committed to doing everything in our power to prevent this from ever happening again,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
A look at where the prosecutions stand:
HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN CHARGED?
The number of defendants charged with Jan. 6-related federal crimes is approaching 1,000. They range from misdemeanor charges against people who entered the Capitol but did not engage in any violence to seditious conspiracy charges against members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys extremist groups accused of violently plotting to stop the transfer of presidential power.
More than 100 police officers were injured at the Capitol. More than 280 defendants have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement officers on Jan. 6, according to the Justice Department. The FBI is posting videos and photos of violent, destructive rioters in seeking the public’s help in identifying other culprits.
Investigators have used facial recognition software, license plate readers and other high-tech tools to track down some suspects. Networks of online sleuths have helped the FBI identify rioters based on digital clues.
Among those still on the lam: the person who put two explosives outside the offices of the Republican and Democratic national committees before the riot. The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Metropolitan Police Department are offering a $500,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
Authorities have shared a staggering amount of evidence with defense lawyers — more than nine terabytes of information that would take over 100 days to view. The shared files include thousands of hours of surveillance footage from the Capitol and hundreds of hours of bodycam videos from police officers who tried to hold off the mob.
HOW MANY HAVE PLEADED GUILTY?
Nearly 500 people have pleaded guilty to riot-related charges, typically hoping that cooperating could lead to a lighter punishment.
About three-quarters of them pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in which the maximum sentence was either six months or one year behind bars. More than 100 of them have pleaded guilty to felony charges punishable by longer prison terms.
The first person to plead guilty to a Jan. 6-related crime was Jon Ryan Schaffer, an Indiana musician who joined the Oath Keepers. Schaffer was one of at least eight Oath Keepers who pleaded guilty before the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, and other members went to trial on seditious conspiracy charges.
The Justice Department also cut plea deals with several Proud Boys members, securing their cooperation to build a case against former national leader Enrique Tarrio and other top members of the group. A New York man, Matthew Greene, was the first Proud Boys member to plead guilty to conspiring with others to stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote.
HOW MANY HAVE GONE TO TRIAL?
Dozens of riot defendants have elected to let juries or judges decide their fates. For the most part, they haven’t fared well at trial.
The Justice Department notched a high-stakes victory in November when a jury convicted Rhodes, the Oath Keepers’ founder, and a Florida chapter leader of seditious conspiracy. It was the first seditious conspiracy conviction at trial in decades. Jurors acquitted three other Oath Keepers associates of the Civil War-era charge, but convicted them of other felony offenses.
The next major milestone is the sedition trial of Tarrio and four other members of the Proud Boys. Jury selection in the trial of the far-right extremist group started last month.
In other cases, an Ohio man who stole a coat rack from the Capitol testified that he was acting on orders from Trump when he stormed the Capitol. A New Jersey man described by prosecutors as a Nazi sympathizer claimed he didn’t know that Congress met at the Capitol. A retired New York Police Department officer testified that he was defending himself when he tackled a police officer and grabbed his gas mask outside the Capitol.
Those defenses fell flat. Jurors unanimously convicted all three men of every charge in their respective indictments.
Federal juries have convicted at least 22 people of Jan. 6 charges. Judges have convicted an additional 24 riot defendants after hearing and deciding cases without a jury.
Only one person, New Mexico resident Matthew Martin, has been acquitted of all charges after a trial. After hearing testimony without a jury, U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden concluded that it was reasonable for Martin to believe that outnumbered police officers allowed him and others to enter the Capitol through the Rotunda doors on Jan. 6.
HOW MANY HAVE BEEN SENTENCED?
At least 362 riot defendants were sentenced by the end of 2022. Roughly 200 of them have received terms of imprisonment ranging from seven days to 10 years. Prosecutors had recommended a jail or prison sentence in approximately 300 of those 362 cases.
Retired New York Police Department Officer Thomas Webster has received the longest prison sentence. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who sentenced Webster to a decade in prison, also presided over the first Oath Keepers sedition trial and will sentence Rhodes and Rhodes’ convicted associates.
Webster is one of 34 riot defendants who has received a prison sentence of at least three years. More than half of them, including Webster, assaulted police officers at the Capitol.
The riot resulted in more than $2.7 million in damage. So far, judges have ordered roughly 350 convicted rioters to collectively pay nearly $280,00 in restitution. More than 100 rioters have been ordered to pay over $241,000 in total fines.
Judges also have ordered dozens of rioters to serve terms of home detention ranging from two weeks to one year — usually instead of jail time — and to collectively perform more than 14,000 hours of community service.
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